A shepherd in the family

My brother Pablo David, better known as Father Ambo, became a bishop on the same day the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines put out a pastoral statement that puzzled many people. The statement touched on a range of issues, but it was the bishops’ position on impeachment that was eagerly awaited.  Many rightly thought the leaders of the Church sounded as confused on this matter as the laity they were supposed to guide.

Being one of the signatories to the second impeachment complaint, I got a lot of text messages asking me if it was true that the newlyordained bishop was part of the CBCP committee that drafted this statement.  I said I wasn’t aware that he was; but it would not bother me at all if he were.  I was sure he did justice to his assignment. Pastoral letters are meant to reflect the general sentiment of the whole congregation, not just of those actually elected to write them.

I have read this most recent pastoral statement, and I can say I understand where it is coming from.  I think that it mirrors all the imagined moral dilemmas and fears of the middle class.  Of course, I wish the bishops did not have to comment on whether or not impeachment is the correct approach to solving the nation’s crisis. Bishops are also human.  I do not believe that by virtue of their ecclesiastical position they necessarily have a superior perspective on the political crisis of our society.


Though we may think of them as a special class of people, bishops, in fact, belong to the same culture as their flock, and are not immune to its excesses.  It is not easy to be a shepherd in a society whose moral markers are constantly shifting.  That is why, more than the statement itself, it is the report over pay-offs to some bishops by agents from Malacanang that alarmed me. It is such things, rather than the ambivalence of their statements, that erode the credibility and moral standing of the bishops. They are human too, but being human need not be equated with weakness.  I am happy to learn that many of the bishops actually spurned Malacanang’s shameless attempt at bribery.  Such rejection is the loudest statement they could possibly make to the Arroyo regime.

It is an interesting feeling having a bishop in one’s family.  A special aura seems suddenly to surround this person after his ordination. My brothers and sisters, all raised in the solemnity of Catholic rituals, could not decide if they should kiss their brother’s ring or his cheek as they approached him after the Mass.  Ambo, the tenth of thirteen siblings, spared us from any awkwardness by offering not his hand but his tight fraternal embrace.  It was his way of telling us: I am a bishop, yes, but I remain your brother.

By pure coincidence, last Sunday’s gospel was taken from the Gospel of Mark (Mk. 6: 1-6). It tells of Jesus returning to preach at the synagogue of Nazareth, his home town.  His town mates who heard him were amazed; they did not know how to regard him. “‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked.  ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, ‘Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house, is a prophet without honor.’”  It was a subtle rebuke of their faithlessness in the face of a messiah who looked just like one of them.

Ambo wove his first homily to his fellow bishops around this theme. He began by saying that God sent his only begotten son to become man in order to show the rest of us what it is to be human. For, there is among us, he said, a widespread tendency to draw a sharp line between the spiritual and the material, between divinity and humanity. “Did not Christ become fully human precisely to show us that being human need not mean being fallen, flawed, and sinful?  In the larger scheme of things, even our mistakes have much to contribute to a creation in process, to the task of becoming human together.”

Addressing his brothers in the sacred order of bishops, Ambo said: “People who tell us to attend to the spiritual and leave the material and the physical to the secular society do not know what the realm of the spiritual is all about.  Perhaps it is also our fault, in more ways than one.  Unwittingly, we may have reinforced a kind of attitude that polarizes the religious from the secular.  Gaudium et Spes reminds us that we are a Church in the modern world. We are learning to dialogue with other religions and cultures, but I wonder if we should not learn to dialogue with secular society as well.  This can only be possible however if we first suspend our pre-judgments and our tendencies to label anyone who doesn’t agree with us as anti-life, anti-God, or anti-family.  It is counter-productive to simply take a sharp adversarial stance or a posture of militancy.  We might end up alienating more people, or marginalizing ourselves.”

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asked Nathanael when Philip told him that he had seen the messiah and that he was from Nazareth.  Isn’t this the same despair we promote, Ambo asked, when we cap every self-lacerating exercise with the collective sigh, “Onli in da Pilipins!”  We must begin by restoring our faith in ourselves as a nation, and rise above our cynicism.  Thus the young shepherd spoke.

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